From Grant Wood to Grandma Moses, Great Artists Portrayed Steam Threshing Era

Regionalist painters like Thomas Hart Benton portrayed art of the harvest

| Winter 2007

Paintings of farm engines explore dynamic change in the heartland of America with brush and color, as potent testaments to the power of the steam engine upon a canvas that is America. Various artists – Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and Grandma Moses among them – personally witnessed the steam revolution in farming communities where work was accomplished communally with the might of steam threshing engines. These artists lived before, during and after the proliferation of the steam engine. And because they were born into or experienced life in rural villages, they were ideally positioned to interpret the impact of steam threshing machines.

Their art is often referred to as Regionalist; it is alternately praised and scorned as the values of Americans wax and wane between those of a global America obsessed with pop culture, and those who appreciate health, home and the hard work that provides a sense of self-worth and community. Michael Hall, author of Picturing Myth and Meaning for a Culture of Change, describes regionalists as “painters committed to an idea of American art as figurative/narrative/landscape expression fully pluralistic, democratic and populist in outlook.” The essence of the populist outlook Hall refers to is of working men and women who harnessed the power of the steam engine in a collaborative effort to work their farms for the sake of achieving modest prosperity. Their endeavors are depicted by Thomas Hart Benton, Lavern Kammerude, Grandma Moses and Grant Wood through colorful, passionate paintings that capture the impact of steam threshing power on their lives.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) is renowned for his ability to present the labors of the common man, a fact that is evident in his painting Threshing Wheat. In this painting, Benton juxtaposes the machine and the horse in a harvest scene: The golden wheat, blue sky and white mountains of fair clouds frame the labors of men while the black smoke that billows from the threshing machine snakes across the horizon. Light and darkness convey a poetic dichotomy of the revolution that is the machine. The painting dramatizes the social and environmental changes Benton perceived, and contains cultural commentary typical of his works.

A native of Missouri, Benton studied and traveled extensively, producing canvases labeled Modernist until he returned to his roots to provide artistic studies of the social contexts of America. He shared his passion for exploring the American experience through varied historical presentations, and he shared his vision of capturing that history with other artists.

Grant Wood

Grant Wood (1891-1942) studied art with Benton at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood was a focused artisan who witnessed the steam era’s peak and descent, and, to the nation’s benefit, he was born with an inclination for drawing. He grew up in Iowa, where he spent most of his life and gained an accurate historical background for his paintings. He spent his life developing his artistic career through varied pursuits that honed his talent for capturing life in rural Iowa, including the steam threshing era.

The three-panel oil painting Dinner for Threshers presents the real life of threshers returning from the fields, followed by wagons hauling the bundles of grain to be threshed. The painting was completed in 1934 and appears to depict a scene from the year after his birth: 1892 is painted on the barn.